SONICBlue ProGear

A trailblazing information appliance (January 2002 issue)

When I moderated a demo session at the Mobile Insights conference in March 2000 one of the demos really caught my attention. It was Janet Leising showing off a prototype of the ProGear information appliance. Janet explained that the ProGear was an economical Linux-based tablet computer with excellent battery life due to a power-miserly Transmeta processor. She described the ProGear as a device for vertical markets such as medical, education, travel, and entertainment where it could be customized to meet specific customer needs. She also explained that frontpath, inc. was a wholly owned subsidiary of digital media company S3. Press materials at the time predicted an average configuration to run about US$1,500 and that quantity shipments would be available in the first quarter of 2001.

Fast forward to the present. Things always take a bit longer than expected, but the ProGear is alive and well, and destined to make an impact. Parent S3 has changed its name to SONICBlue and is no longer into chips and graphics boards. The company now markets the Rio MP3 player, the "personal TV" ReplayTV, the Go-Video "dual" consumer electronics, high end home theater components, digital television, and the ProGear. That's an interesting mix of consumer and vertical market technologies and one cannot help but speculate how the ProGear might fit into a consumer market home entertainment and information system. SONICBlue, in fact, did recently issue a press release announcing that it had teamed up with avant-garde home automation specialist Xanboo, Inc. (www.xanboo.com) to provide custom electronic systems designers and installers with a broadband-based wireless digital entertainment system that would also incorporate security, control, and automation functions. Leising, now SONICBlue's VP of marketing and business development said, "The couch just got more interesting. For the first time consumers will be able to wirelessly surf the internet and stream content at broadband speeds and also control home entertainment systems, monitor a sleeping baby through video, or remotely open the garage door from the comfort of a favorite couch or anywhere else in the home."

This scenario certainly resonates with me as I have become totally addicted to the substantial benefits of the wireless LAN connected to a DSL line in my home. I still use my big desktop PC, but a Casio IT-700 Pocket PC with an internal 802.11b has pretty much replaced my morning newspaper. The prospect of not only being able to peruse email and get the latest from the web while sipping a coup of Starbucks coffee on the sofa downstairs, but also monitor and manage the general well-being of my home, and the entertainment of its occupants, is a tantalizing thought indeed. I am firmly convinced that the emergence of wireless home and office networks are the key to the success of internet appliances and other mobile web and email access devices. This means that while I agree with SONICblue's current concentration on vertical markets, I can also see a huge opportunity in the consumer market.

Regular readers of Pen Computing Magazine may recall a case study in our September 2001 issue where we described the use of ProGears as electronic menus at the famous Aureole restaurant in Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Hotel. A customized application provided the restaurant a quick and efficient way to update its gigantic and ever-changing selection of fine wines, thus reducing the need for frequent, expensive updating a 50+ page paper winelist. The 15 Linux-based ProGears used in the pilot project were using a customized XML application running on Netscape. One of the limitations of the project was that Internet Explorer—and thus some of its unique plug-ins—were not available for Linux. The developers stated that if Windows had been available on the ProGear they would have used it instead of Mobile Linux.

Other existing or potential customers apparently agreed and SONICblue complied by making Windows available on the Pro-Gear, thus opening the device to the tremendous wealth of applications, development tools, and utilities available for Windows. The result is the ProGear SE Information Appliance, "SE" as in Windows 98 SE.

So what exactly is the ProGear? That depends on the definition. SONICblue calls it an Information Appliance. Our technology editor, Geoff Walker, called it a webpad that's not far from being a Tablet PC. A few years ago it would have simply been called a pen slate or a pen tablet. Using current definitions, the ProGear is closer to a Tablet PC than to a webpad. That's because it is a full-function computer with a relatively speedy processor and a 5.6GB hard disk. The ProGear can do everything a standard desktop or notebook computer can do. It is, however, not a Tablet PC by Microsoft's definition as the Tablet PC spec, among others, calls for an active electromagnetic digitizer and Windows XP. Walker estimated that the incremental OEM material cost to upgrade to full Tablet PC status would be under $200, which would make the ProGear quite cost effective in that class.

So let's assume you are interested in a device like the ProGear. What is it and what do you get?

Essentially a full-fledged computer placed into a stylish magnesium enclosure. With a footprint of 9 x 11 inches, the ProGear is large enough to accommodate a bright 10.4-inch TFT with a resolution of 1024x768. 128MB of RAM is enough for Windows 98 (even though 16MB is used up by Transmeta's Code Morphing Software), and the 5.6GB hard disk likewise is plenty big enough. The 400MHz TM3200 Transmeta processor—designed for low power consumption—is not a speed demon and it heated up the casing of our ProGear considerably more than we expected. (A Tablet PC prototype we recently played with stayed absolutely cool even after three hours of continuous operation. SONICblue states that the ProGear should, too.) A switch to Transmeta's new TM5800 would add performance and likely cut down on the heat. Despite the miserly nature of the TM3200, it is advisable to go for the optional 6-cell 3,200mAH power pack. The larger pack adds a bulge and some weight to the ProGear's slender profile, but it also provides up to six hours of battery life instead of just two or three. A standard AAA alkaline battery provides backup for when you swap out the main battery. The unit must be off for this—no hot swapping.

Operating the ProGear is, of course, different from operating a notebook. Unlike Tablet PC prototypes, the ProGear is designed for using the display in landscape orientation. The digitizer is very precise and never lost its calibration during the review. The screen can be manipulated either with a stylus or with a finger. A large icon at the lower right of the display lets you toggle between left and right mouseclicks. We initially thought the prominent control located below the screen was a secondary cursor control device. It isn't. Instead it operates like the wheel on a scroll mouse. Personally, I would have preferred to see it double up as a cursor control device. The scroll button sits in the middle of a milky-white plastic oval with embedded LEDs that show charging status.

Unlike most pen tablets and webpads, the ProGear has a screen cover that's leather outside (or at least it smells like leather) and foam on the inside. The cover is mounted at the top of the ProGear. You flip it back when you use the unit. When you're done, you place the cover over the screen and push the plastic tab at the bottom of the cover into a groove at the bottom of the display. This keeps the cover in place and also puts the ProGear into Standby mode. A very clever solution. To wake the device, you push the power switch or operate the scroll button.

Onboard connectivity is limited to a USB port, a power jack, a microphone jack—all sitting under a rubber plug that's attached to the device—plus an IR port, an audio-out jack, and the on/off switch. The back of the ProGear sports charging/cradle contacts.

The ProGear comes with a clever on-screen keyboard that can always be called up via icon in the bottom icon bar. The keyboard can be moved around and has three settings: tiny, large, and "ergonomically arranged" for those who are used to those odd two-part keyboards. The two larger versions are actually big enough to type on with your fingers.

The ProGear also comes with a screen rotation utility that really works. It never hung up once and it never lost the digitizer calibration.

How does it all work in real life?

Quite well. Despite its low weight of just 3.5 pounds with the extended battery, the ProGear feels businesslike and quite substantial. The magnesium case makes the device completely rigid without any flexing at all. The screen cover, while a good idea, tends to get in the way and looks a bit untidy. As stated above, the centrally located navigation button should definitely act as a cursor control device rather than just as a scroll emulator. The LTPS (Low Temperature Polisilicon) display is superb and so is the passive digitizer. If you are used to an active "mouse over" digitizer it will take some getting used to, but sonicblue has done everything it could to make this arrangement work well. 1024 x 768 XGA resolution on a 10.4-inch screen makes icons and text quite small. We're talking 124 dots per inch here. On the plus-size, all images are razor sharp. Note that the display is limited to 16-bit color, or roughly 65,000 shades, as opposed to the 24 or 32-bit "full color" capabilities of almost all modern notebooks and desktop PCs.

Operation, at least under Windows, is adequate but far from instantaneous. This, and the surprising amount of heat that our test system generated, may make you wish for a different design or processor arrangement.

As for the choice between Mobile Linux 2.4 or Windows 98 SE, that largely depends on the application a customer has in mind. The Linux version comes with a very complete complement of software and may be perfect for certain vertical market applications that require customized software and the kind of heavy duty file and system management that Linux provides. However, even though there is plenty of Linux software out there, some of it is hard to install if you are not a UNIX/LINUX expert, and necessities such as Internet Explorer are not available at all.

The Windows 98 version, on the other hand, will clearly be more familiar and less intimidating to the average user, and it can run the latest versions of all commercial software. It will likely also be the platform of choice for consumer applications. I don't know which version Xanboo is using for its digital entertainment systems. I do know that I'd want mine to run standard Windows so that I can download and install.

As far as pen tablets (or Information Appliances) go, sonicblue did a good job with the ProGear. The rest is a marketing and product placement issue. I do believe the market, and not just the vertical market, is ready to accept wireless webpads but it will require selling and education as much as great technology. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Processor Transmeta TM3200 400 MHz
OS Microsoft Windows 98SE or Mobile Linux 2.4
Memory 128MB RAM, 5.6GB Hard Disk
Display 1024 x 768 pixel XGA TFT LCD
Digitizer 5-wire resistive touch screen
Storage HD, 1 Type II PC card
Size 11.0 x 9.0 x 1.0 inches
Weight 3.2 pounds
Power 1,600 or 3,200mAH Li-Ion
Interface USB, audio in/out, IR
Options Deskstand, keyboard, charging cradle with USB hub
Price US$1,495 (est.)
Contact SONICBlue www.sonicblue.com


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